This year's honorees are breaking barriers, lifting up countless others and helping us see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel

In 2016, PEOPLE introduced a list of women changing the world, led by Oprah Winfrey, then-First Lady Michelle Obama and Jennifer Garner.

In the years since, everyday heroes and celebrities have been featured in the pages of the annual special, and as editor Dan Wakeford writes in this week's issue, "this year it's more important than ever to highlight the achievements of women who, despite obstacles, are doing good and breaking ceilings and showing young women and girls—and all of us—that we live in a world where everything is possible."

In 2021, Vanessa Bryant paves the way, opening up to PEOPLE for the first time since the tragic death of her husband Kobe and daughter Gianna last year. Though feeling their loss every day, she honors their memory with the Mamba & Mambacita Sports Foundation, continuing Kobe's great work promoting equal opportunities for young girls in sports.

"Her fortitude has been remarkable and inspiring throughout the world," writes Wakeford of Bryant, 38, also mom to daughters Natalia, 18, Bianka, 4, and Capri, 20 months.

vanessa bryant
Credit: Photographer - Brian Bowen Smith; Stylist - Law Roach/The Only Agency

Also featured in this year's issue:

  • Georgia's Stacey Abrams, who mobilized an estimated 800,000 new voters for the November election
  • Dancer Marisa Hamamoto, founder of dance company Infinite Flow, which employs dancers with and without disabilities
  • Former National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, who overcame a speech impediment and has quickly inspired many since her moment at the presidential inauguration
  • Kimberly Ladd, a mother who overcame opioid addiction and launched a coalition to give resources and support to people facing the same
  • Actress Sofia Vergara, who teamed up with Kiva to deliver millions in small business loans to people struggling amid the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Crystal Echo Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, whose organization IllumiNative is pushing back on harmful Native American stereotypes
  • Naomi Osaka, the tennis star who used her platform during the U.S. Open by wearing masks bearing the names of Black people killed as a result of racial profiling and police brutality
  • Camila Cabello, who launched the Healing Justice Project in January to provide grants to 10 BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and youth-led organizations to cover six months' worth of mental health support for their workers
  • Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Dr. Kathrin Jansen, Dr. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Lisa Jackson, four of the many women behind the development of the COVID-19 vaccines

To read their stories, visit in the days ahead and pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.